3M to go green on pulp, paper purchases

ForestEthics protested against 3M in Texas.
Members of the environmental group ForestEthics protested against 3M paper and pulp buying practices at the 3M Half Marathon in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 19, 2014.
Ann Harkness | Creative Commons via Flickr 2014

Updated 5:40 p.m. | Posted 1:54 p.m.

Pressure from a little-known environmental group has led to a new policy on paper sourcing at Twin Cities-based 3M.

ForestEthics argued the maker of Post-it notes was working with suppliers linked to irresponsible forest management and human rights abuses.

The group has been pressuring 3M since 2009, charging the company's suppliers used practices that destroyed important forests around the world and violated human rights.

In recent years, the group tried to embarrass 3M by hanging protest banners in public places and at 3M-sponsored events. It even hired a plane to circle Target Field during baseball's All-Star festivities last summer with a message asking 3M to protect forests.

On Thursday, though, the corporation and the environmental group known for its sometimes annoying tactics came together to announce 3M's new policy, one the company said will ensure that "all the virgin wood fiber going into 3M's paper-based products and packaging comes from sources that protect forests and respect human rights."

ForestEthics applauded the moves and said it is calling off its multi-year campaign against 3M.

"I've been with my organization for 16 years and I've worked with a lot of international logging companies and branded fortune 500 companies. 3M stands alone," said ForestEthics Executive Director Todd Paglia.

"The company is known worldwide for its innovative spirit," Paglia added."Today, it stands alone for a different reason as the largest manufacturer with the most diverse product line to adopt such stringent standards for the use of forest products."

The first part of 3M's new policy involves tracing the origin of all wood, paper and pulp it buys.

Those materials go in to making everything from Post-its to masking tape to sand paper. The company won't source materials from forests that have high conservation value, such as those containing endangered species in places like Canada, Brazil and Indonesia.

3M is also distancing itself from a forestry certifying body it once promoted, the Sustainable Forest Initiative.

Paglia said 25 other companies, including U.S. Bank and Office Depot, have also dropped the label, which he said is too closely tied to the industry and whose standards aren't as robust as another certifying body, the Forest Stewardship Council.

ForestEthics failed to get 3M to commit only to suppliers with the Forest Stewardship Council's certification, but Paglia said the result of 3M's policy will be even better.

"3M has said forests are so important that they won't delegate responsibility for decision making to any third party. And that's really interesting," he said.

"It will take a lot more work and a lot more rigor. But they will be getting very detailed information throughout their entire supply chain," he added. "I think that's going to have a ripple effect throughout the industry over time."

The cost of implementing the new policy won't be significant, said Jean Sweeney, 3M vice president for environmental, health, safety and sustainability operations.

The company doesn't expect the policy to change the prices consumers pay.

3M had already dedicated resources to sustainable forestry and Sweeney said the companies operating regions around the world now have additional resources to implement the changes.

"This is a small price to pay to guarantee our consumers that any 3M product they buy is made from responsibly harvested wood," she said.

3M is among several Minnesota corporations that have responded to outside pressure to change their sourcing practices.

General Mills and Cargill are working toward using only sustainably sourced palm oil, for example. And Best Buy has switched suppliers for its Sunday advertisement inserts.

Such policy changes aren't only about doing the right thing - brand reputations and new financial risks brought on by climate change are also at stake, said Tim Smith, who studies corporate sustainability practices at the University of Minnesota.

"Why would they want to do it? So they have to spend less money on advertising or management of their PR. Or, they can better avoid the sort of supply chain architecture costs of trying to manage an increasingly volatile source of supply," he said.

Under 3M's new policy, the company has already cut ties with a supplier in Indonesia linked to unsustainable logging.

Beyond environmental considerations, the company is also looking at human rights.

Its suppliers must get permission from indigenous groups and local communities before logging takes place — it's a requirement ForestEthics said goes above and beyond what most other companies have done.

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